Stella isn’t your typical hospital volunteer, with her four legs and floppy ears. The 4-year-old weimaraner caught several curious glances and earned a few belly rubs during an appearance at OSF Saint Anthony Medical Center on Tuesday with her owner and nurse Theresa Geraci.

Stella isn’t your typical hospital volunteer, with her four legs and floppy ears.

The 4-year-old weimaraner caught several curious glances and earned a few belly rubs during an appearance at OSF Saint Anthony Medical Center on Tuesday with her owner and nurse Theresa Geraci.

Stella wore a volunteer badge like any human helping at the hospital would, a sign of her future responsibilities when OSF launches an animal-assisted therapy program later this year.

Geraci, team leader in the hospital’s cardiothoracic surgery department, is coordinating the program and was inspired to introduce the new therapy method after her father fell ill about eight years ago.

Her father was on dialysis at the time and not thrilled about the treatment, but he seemed to de-stress whenever Geraci would bring her dogs — particularly one dog, another Weimaraner named Julie — to his house during the process.

“She loved my dad,” Geraci said. “He would pet her, and it seemed to calm him down. He didn’t remember her name, but he would always ask me to bring ‘that dog’ over when he was doing treatment.”

Geraci’s father passed away in 2001. She took some time away from the project to grieve and then started researching how she could bring animal-assisted therapy to OSF.

And there was a lot to do. She researched funding the program and how to present benefits of the therapy, such as lowering blood pressure and reducing stress. She also worked closely with the hospital’s infection-control department to minimize risks.

She found a bulk of her research in the neighboring suburb of Naperville, where a similar organization called Paws 4 Therapy was formed in 2002.

Company president Patty Kaplan contracted with Edward Hospital in Naperville to implement the program, and as of 2007, more than 65,000 patient visits had taken place without incidence of hospital-related infection, according to the company’s Web site.

Geraci went to hospital officials with her plan of action, armed with bundles of research, and the reaction was positive from the start.

The program has about 25 dogs and owners signed up so far. Geraci said she would like to see enough volunteers enroll in the program so dogs could visit patients every day. But, in the same respect, the program is about quality, not quantity.

Visits with the therapy dogs are solely at the request of patients. Patients who have a fear of dogs or do not like dogs don’t have to participate. If a patient is in a double room and the roommate speaks out against a visit, the dogs will not come into the room.

Patients who are immuno-comprised will not be able to participate in the program as a means to protect their health. In turn, patients with certain infections or ailments, like tuberculosis, put the dogs at risk and also cannot participate.

Therapy dogs must, and Geraci stressed this point very strongly, be very obedient. They must like people, listen to their owner’s commands and be at least 1 year old.

Prior therapy training is not a requirement. That’s part of what the dogs will receive, a four-day intensive training session on hospital policy and procedures, once their owners sign on for the program. Geraci said the dogs will actually train in mock hospital rooms.

Dogs also must be up-to-date on vaccinations, and owners must bathe and groom them 24 hours before coming to the hospital. Owners must show proof from their veterinarians that the dogs are healthy, including proper flea protection and heartworm prevention efforts.

Geraci said the patient visits will last anywhere from five to 15 minutes. Hand sanitizer is on standby for before and after visits, and hospital officials will use a sheet to cover the patients if they want the dogs to sit on the beds.

Training for the first round of dogs and owners takes place this weekend, and future training sessions will be scheduled as more people sign up for the program.

Melissa Westphal can be reached at (815) 987-1341 or mwestpha@rrstar.com.

Get involved
OSF Saint Anthony Medical Center is looking for more volunteers to help with animal-assisted therapy program.

Handlers must be at least 18 and older, and there are several requirements to ensure the dog-patient visits are successful.

Basic qualifying requirements are that your dog should consistently perform the following acts with one command: “sit,” “down,” “stay” and “recall.” Dogs also must be able to walk loosely on a leash without pulling even when excited or in a new environment, get along well with other dogs and perform commands without treats.

Therapy dogs also must like people, not be overly vocal, have no food or possession issues, have no separation or anxiety issues, be at least 1 year old, be up-to-date on all vaccinations and be free of all skin problems.

Call (815) 227-2500 or visit osfhealth.com/animal_therapy.html for more information.